As the U.S. economy remains in the doldrums and the rise in oil prices has finally stalled – which means cheap, or at least cheaper, gas – America’s Dixie Coast could be in for a very lucrative summer, extending a rebound that began last year.
This span of white-sand beaches, lagoons, trails, barrier islands, golf courses and gambling casinos tucked between New Orleans and Panama City, Fla., has endured a difficult decade of hurricanes and oil spills. By and large, tourists kept their distance, as the region struggled to clean up and rebuild.
But nothing takes Americans off airplanes and puts them back in their cars like a troubled economy when spending a lot on travel suddenly seems like a reckless extravagance.
If there is a high degree of uncertainty and low consumer confidence, people will still travel; they just travel shorter distances, said Herb Malone, head of Alabama's Gulf Shores and Orange Beach Tourism Department, which promotes the peninsula that juts out into the Gulf of Mexico along the south end of Bon Secour Bay, about 50 miles south of Mobile.
And add lower fuel prices to the mix and the distance Americans are willing to drive increases even more. Some travel analysts in the Gulf region estimate that when gas prices are perceived as low enough Americans will drive up to 700 miles one way to enjoy mild to hot weather.
The Dixie Coast has long been a favorite wintering ground for legions of retired, RV-driving empty-nesters -- called snowbirds by locals -- fleeing winter weather hundreds of miles to the north. In the summer, families from as far away as Illinois and Ohio are drawn by the climate, child-friendly activities and prices.
But all that changed with Hurricanes Katrina, Rita, Gustav and Ike, as well as the economic downturn and the subsequent tepid recovery.
In 2007 we had a record year, the best since Katrina (in 2005), said Malone. In 2008 we didn't see more than a 3 percent decline in traffic. In '08 and '09 we saw 1 percent upticks. In the first part of '10 we saw double-digits.”
Then, just as the region was recovering from the hurricanes, the Deep Horizon oil spill in April 2010 delivered yet another haymaker to Gulf Coast tourism.
But so far 2012 looks promising. Snowbirds resumed their winter migrations in force. From December to February, Alabama's Fort Morgan, Gulf Shores and Orange Beach saw a 12.3 percent growth in taxable retail sales and an 8.3 percent increase in lodging rentals over to the same period a year. That was the first time since the economic downturn that those communities saw growth after the BP Deepwater Horizon spill checked their post-Katrina rebound.
Taxable retail sales and lodging rentals were up impressively at the start of the spring season in March, too, by 21.3 percent and 24 percent, respectively. A survey by the Gulf Shores and Orange Beach Tourism of local managers found that condo rentals -- which are typically reserved by drive-in families seeking to save money over booking hotel rates -- will see the largest projected increase this summer in years while upper-end hotel bookings might decline slightly from 2011.
Everybody is trying to save, said Jaffe Perniciaro, tourism information specialist for the Mississippi Gulf Coast Convention and Visitor's Bureau. People have been flocking to our coupons online. Those numbers have been astronomical.
The cost of fuel at the pump is obviously a major factor for driving tourists. According to AAA, on Independence Day 2011, Americans drove an average of 573 miles round-trip compared to 617 the year before when gasoline was about $1 cheaper.
The national average price at the pump is about $3.56 now, down 38 cents from a recent peak of $3.94 on April 5, AAA reported.
As gas prices move lower, people are breathing a sigh of relief,” said Avery Ash, regulatory affairs manager of AAA who analyses fuel prices.
And so perhaps is the tourist trade in the Gulf Coast.